Few things are changing as fast on our home planet as the cryosphere–the frozen portion of the earth’s surface, which is melting quickly. And nowhere faster or with more grievous effect than along the Andes, as this piercing film makes clear!
Author, Educator, Environmentalist
Mountain glacier demise preludes the fate of the great ice sheets on Greenland and Antarctica, if humanity does not come to its senses soon. Steinman’s film wakes us up to the danger by hearing directly from the ones suffering the consequences of society’s inaction.
Fmr. Head, NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies
Adjunct Professor, Columbia University Earth Institute
Filmmaker Ethan Steinman’s beautifully-filmed and sobering documentary paints a bleak picture of the future for an already struggling people. Tropical glaciers have historically topped the Andes Mountains, running all the way down the western spine of South America. But as Earth’s atmosphere warms, those glistening white expanses are shrinking, with immense consequences for farmers who rely on glacial melt for their water; many, if not most, will have no choice but to relocate, most likely to an urban setting. Steinman follows scientists as they collect core samples from the remaining glaciers (to be stored and studied when the ice masses themselves are gone). Interviewees include educators and environmentalists (including Al Gore), as well as men and women working the soil in Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina, who understand what is happening to the climate, even as residents of the Northern Hemisphere debate whether anything significant is occurring at all. A second disc included deleted scenes and extended interviews. As much an anthropological study and geography lesson as a climate-change documentary, this is highly recommended.
Glacial Balance is a captivating film, stunningly beautiful and deeply disturbing. From the glaciers high atop the Andes to the cities in the valleys below, the film takes a close-up and personal look at the lives of local villagers and the work of glaciologists racing to document the disappearance of the Andes snow and ice due to climate change.
Seattle-based filmmaker, Ethan Steinman, documents the heartbreaking decline of agricultural communities in the region, from the livelihoods of small-plot coffee farmers in Colombia to the viability of industrial agriculture in Chile, where farms that feed the world are facing inevitable drought and decline.
As touching as it is haunting, Glacial Balance brings into high relief the uncertainty we face in the wake of climate change. Lives are in the balance as glaciers in South America, and across the planet, slowly melt away, taking with them unique ecosystems, ancient communities, and individual livelihoods, and leaving us to face a most uncertain future.
Environmental Columnist, The Japan Times
Although there’s been plenty of talk about the Andean glaciers melting fast—and faster than originally projected–this film moves the issue from the realm of a vague concept to a real phenomenon, affecting real people’s lives in many ways every day. Glacial Balance not only admirably presents modern glacial science but also balances the science with the social consequences of rapidly melting glaciers in the Andes.
Cindy L. Parker MD, MPH
Bloomberg School of Public Health
Johns Hopkins University
Through the lens of a documentary we see the impact of climate change on the peoples and countries of South America that rely on the glacier fields of the Andes for their water supply. Taking a country–by–country approach, the filmmakers follow two different sets of individuals in each geographical location. What do we find?
One group they follow includes the farmers who live in a particular area and the impact of the shrinking glaciers on the dominant crop grown there, as well as how that affects the livelihoods of the farmers and their community (e.g. they follow a coffee farmer in Columbia and a wine–maker in Argentina). The other group followed is the team of scientists studying and recording the changes in the glaciers in that same country and how their research is informing public policies at both the community and national levels.
What I especially like about this film is how it documents the day–to–day activities of the farmers and how climate change very directly impacts their everyday lives. You see firsthand how changes in the annual patterns of glacier melt forces people to alter what they plant and the consequent diet they eat (e.g. beans instead of potatoes in Peru because potatoes consume too much water) as well as how these changes impact basic energy consumption in societies that for decades have relied primarily on hydro–electric power production. The science is also well documented and the film is divided into “chapters” with a menu to select country by country. The average attention span of a modern teenager is not going to sit through more than one country’s worth of this movie at a given time; being able to pick–and–choose will make it far more likely for a teacher actually to use this very good film in his or her classroom.
National Science Teachers Association
Baltazar Ushca, the last iceman of Ecuador, climbs Chimborazo higher than he has since he was a boy to collect the ice from the glacier so that he may sell it at the markets below. Glacial Balance is a documentary film that reveals the truth of the Andean Glaciers and the South American communities that are shrinking along with them.
Documentary filmmaker, Ethan Steinman, takes his camera and treks the Andean Glaciers traveling through the countries of Columbia, Peru, Ecuador, Chile, Argentina, and Bolivia. He documents the work of ice core expert, Dr. Lonnie Thompson along with the local communities that are faced with the very real present effects of glacial change, such as the disappearing water supplies, and the conflicts that it causes between communities. Effects that we in America think are either impossible, in the too distant future, or simply inapplicable to us. Glacial Balance educates on such a superior level that after watching it, I was immediately googling how communities could adapt to decreasing water supplies.
If you’re like me, you usually don’t say or write glaciers and South America in the same sentence. Now, I cannot think of South America without thinking of its glaciers. Glacial Balance leaves you with the sobering thought of what South America will be like without them. On second thought…how will the United States be affected and how would we adapt? Climate change is happening. Glacial Balance challenges us to think ahead and start a dialogue as to what our communities worldwide need to do to adapt to it.
DC New Movies Examiner
At the heart of Ethan Steinman’s documentary film are the everyday, current effects of melting glaciers on humankind. It is especially the small-scale farmers of the global South whose lives Steinman seeks to understand. But he also interviews climate change research scientists, and for one of these – Lonnie Thompson – a far more universal concern underpins his research. This is the preservation, for some unknown future, of core samples of glacier material that span millennia. The gems within this preserved material are fragments of plant residue that may give us new knowledge of a distant climactic past. The theory goes that once we know how climate has been in the past – as preserved in the pristine core samples of ancient glaciers whose secrets are often only revealed at high altitude sites – we can then more clearly understand just what it is that humans are adding to the climate change equation. That the glaciers of South America are now rapidly disappearing adds pressure to this already passion-filled quest.
From the scientists’ perspective, here is the catch: when glaciers “retreat,” they also reduce. This reduction comes at the top layer of the glacier as global temperatures rise and less snow accumulates. But it occurs at the bottom of the glacier, too, as massive pressure-packed glacial snow – now ice – is eroded by meltwater that flows underneath the glacier. As a glacier’s ice melts, with it go priceless fragments of plant material. For Lonnie Thompson, this means the loss of crucial climate information about the past – an off-hand shrug, an added insult to the injury that is climate change itself.
In this film, we find represented both the most practical and land-rooted labour of small-scale farmers, and the highest theoretical work on climate change. Curiously, both of these groups share high-altitude environments in their work. For small-scale farmers of the Andean countries between Colombia and Argentina where this film is shot, the concerns are more proximate and personal. The tiny size of their farms – often less than two hectares – makes them more agile: they can change farming practices by moving locations or adopting new strategies quickly. But their small size also makes them vulnerable and invisible. They are vulnerable because their lives depend on the success of their work, and their work is implicated in the diminishing source of the water necessary to grow food. They are invisible because they have little cultural power and voice. This film goes part way to increasing this voice.
Baltazar Ushca, for example, is one of the last people to collect and sell ice from glaciers. He now has to go higher in altitude than he did a few years before, to find suitable ice. Small coffee growers will have to relocate higher, as the climate warms. Farmers in Ecuador are choosing to grow quinoa over potatoes, because quinoa re- quires less water. It is one thing to take water from a stream that you know will be there forever; it is quite another to use a glacier’s last fast flush before its ultimate expiry. These farmers know the difference, and throughout the Andes, they already feel the effects of climate change as both an environmental alteration and as a psychological state.
The film-making itself matches the now pastiched nature of glaciers. The camera is often hand-held, with little evidence of the use of steadycams; wind static is frequently heard in interviews; stories of farmers are interspersed with those of scientists; and there is no voice-of-god narration to summarize and give the “truth” about glaciers and climate change. Instead, the information presented comes from the accumulations of layers of multifaceted voices in the same way a glacier comes into being. And from the first stunning shot of a camera mounted in a core drilling rig, which sees the ice change as it quickly rises to snow level, the imagery goes far beyond interviews to the land itself, as it shows the effects of a changing climate.
The artistry of the glaciers themselves is meshed with the landscape-changing artistry of the small-scale, adaptive farmers. The purpose behind these farmers’ solutions is not beauty, but survival; still, their solutions are beautiful and their various adaptations indicate an alternative path to human development that might address some aspects of climate change. This path is based on small-scale adaptive change, with life needs in mind, not a large-scale monolithic greed-based economy.
This is a film that could not have been made a decade ago: it was clearly completed on a (nobly) small budget, and ten years ago, small and portable cameras delivering high-definition video quality were not easily sourced. Despite its modest roots, Steinman has avoided the “simple solution” traps that documentary film makers of- ten succumb to. He has maintained the métissage quality of the film by including differing opinions – even including one researcher who apparently seeks to see the bright side of climate change.
The film works. Despite occasional excursions into manure composting and methane production that have only passing relevance to the film’s central thesis, the film manages to combine divergent opinions to provide both scientists’ theoretical understandings of climate changes, and farmers’ responses to it. The movement bet- ween experience and explanation is helpful. This is a noteworthy film in the history of documentary film-making: it shows what can be done by a small crew with a pas- sion to tell an important story, from both the ground up and from the science down.
Brandon University, Canada
Encounters/Encuentros/Rencontres on Education Vol. 15, 2014, 251-252